Journalist & author Barbara Scully talks to Claire Byrne about British Vogue's recent cover shoot controversy, airbrushing over middle-age and embracing positive ageing. Listen back above.

Barbara Scully is proud of her silver hair, having ditched the hair dye during COVID. She’s also proud to be 61 and has plenty of positive things to say about being an older woman. The author of Wise Up: Power, Wisdom, and the Older Woman spoke to Claire Byrne about the mixed messages sent out by air-brushing middle-aged models and what this says about how society views on the ageing process.

The September cover of British Vogue is a re-creation of a '90s Vogue cover shoot, featuring Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford. In the 2023 version, the four models are 30+ years older and their images have reportedly been heavily touched up. One former Vogue editor, Alexandra Shulman, has been quoted as saying they looked like ‘plasticised’ versions of themselves. Writer Barbara Scully says she’s happy the issue of ageing has been highlighted by the controversy, but she also thinks it's evidence of something deeper:

"It’s depressing, but at the same time it highlights very clearly how much of an ageist society we live in."

Inclusivity of older women comes with the caveat that they can’t show their age, Barbara says; and even in the case of conventionally attractive women, their looks are tweaked to mask the signs of ageing:

"To think that you can put these women – they were beautiful anyway, let’s be honest, they were supermodels – that you can put them on the cover, and say, look at this, here these women are, these women in their 50s, but you’re not giving us a real representation, even of them with all their beauty."

The message seems to be that it’s fine to age, as long as you don't look it:

"The message is, ‘Yes, get older; be in your 50s, be in your 60s – as long as you look like you’re in your 30s, then it’s fine.' And that is the thing that I think is really, really galling as you get older."

Barbara says that men can also suffer from society's intense focus on appearance; but she thinks that older men still get more of a pass; and enjoy the ‘silver fox’ or ‘elder statesman’ descriptions, which don’t really have a female equivalent:

"To age naturally and normally is seen as a failure; for women in particular, and it is different for men."

At 61, Barbara is embracing the process of ageing and sees many positive aspects to growing older:

"I believe that it is now, when you are post-menopause and when you reach your 60s for example, that this is when you are actually stepping into your power as a woman."

Being a woman over 60 in the workplace means you have to hide your age, according to some friends of Barbara’s in the corporate world, who tell her that going grey is just not an option. She thinks that working women of her age shouldn’t have to pretend to be younger than they really are:

"I believe equality is about choice, about doing things your own way. But when you get to a stage where you feel you have to do something – then that’s a problem."

Barbara’s on a mission to encourage women to do things their own way, and to present to the world in a way that reflects their age – if they want to. There is a huge pride and gratitude in getting past 60, Barbara says, because not everyone makes it to that landmark birthday:

"When you get to my age, you’ll have lost people along the way. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true; it is a privilege to get older. I am thrilled to be 61 and to be reasonably still together."

It’s not about laying down all the beauty tools and going out looking like a scarecrow, Barbara says - It’s about choice. Self-care and personal grooming are great, as long as you don't feel you have to conform to someone else’s standards:

"You do it for yourself. I mean, I want to look the best version of me. I use make-up and believe it or not, I have a hair dryer and a straightener and all that kind of stuff. It’s when you feel you have to reach a certain level, then it’s a problem."

Everyone wants to look their best, but that can be achieved along with an acceptance of the ageing process. Focusing on health is also very important, Barbara says:

"You need to make peace with what is happening, because your body is changing and your face is changing. The sooner you do that, the better. And I think being healthy – that becomes a really big issue as you get older."

Listen back to the full chat with Claire Byrne and Barbara Scully above. And for more on the current stories of the day; with in-depth features and consumer interest, got to the Today with Claire Byrne show page here.

Wise Up: Power, Wisdom and the Older Woman by Barbara Scully is published by Zsa Zsa Publishing.